A young, ambitious robot named Rodney shows up on the doorstep of the robot-world’s most beloved corporation, intending to become a successful inventor in their employ. When it turns out the corporation, now led by Phineas T. Ratchet (but really his mother Madame Gasket) no longer harbors special feelings for young inventors, and, in fact, holds a measure of disdain for all but the upper class of robot-citizen, Rodney begins helping the less fortunate, reparing and renewing them with spare nuts and bolts, and his kind heart.
The story in the animated children’s movie “Robots” is certainly no unique story in the wide world of children’s stories, but it found its way to a recently-agitated nerve of mine.
As I watched the story play out, it occurred to me that it’s vaguely reminiscent of how many people get into and excited about open source software. When I was young, impressionable, and attempting to become a professional developer, my hormone-addled brain compiled a few selected stories on Microsoft, painting them as a big, evil, bad-guy business – the Madame Gasket and Ratchet analogue. I abandoned .NET, loaded up Ubuntu, and started using open source languages. (These events are related, though it was likely more complicated than “MS is evil, let’s abandon ship, and do this other thing!” For starters, I was quite poor.) Judging from the tuneless hum of MS-hate that one could almost feel vibrating networking equipment in the early-to-mid 2000s, I’m not the only one who painted that sort of picture, and embraced OSS as a result. Despite misconceptions, and misinformation, this phenomenon, I think, has been good for the world. I mean, we’ve had The Year of the Linux Desktop like 10 times, right?
The truthier reason that myself, and, I think, many others gravitated toward open source software is that open source software helps people. We humans are not selfishly rational beings. We want to help. We want to see others find joy, and we feel happiness to see it. We want to be Rodney, using our sets of skills to directly help others. Open source software allows us to do that.
Hell, open source software has made my life. If not for Linux (and its ecosystem), PHP, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, et cetera, et cetera, and almost inifinitely more et ceteras, I would probably be working in a grocery store, still – neither enjoying my life, nor helping anyone else enjoy theirs, even a smidgen.
If we all want to be Rodney, why are there Ratchets in open source software? Why do we have articles about assholes in OSS, if Rodney is our ideal? (See: Dealing With (Not Dealing With) the Open Source Assholes, Dear Open Source Project Leader: Quit Being a Jerk, and I Refuse to Tolerate Assholes.) Why do stories pop up every couple months in which someone was clearly an asshole to someone else because of some OSS project?
I decided I’m not linking to any of them, as I don’t want to fan flames. If you search hard enough, you can find examples. Aside from fanning flames, we should keep in mind that a person very rarely fits one label all of the time; Rodney might actually be a jerk from time to time, but that doesn’t make him worthy of the label ‘jerk’. Ratchet, it turns out, is a bit more nuanced than one might think, and thus also isn’t a jerk all the time. Madame Gasket, however, is cartoon-evil; that is, 100%. I say cartoon-evil, because it doesn’t happen in real life. We shouldn’t constantly punish a person who had a fit of jerkitude.
I understand feeling a sort of frustration, indignation, or one of many other negative feelings, both as a project’s maintainer, and as a contributor. We have to remember Rodney. Open source software is great because of all of the people it helps, and all of the people it could help. We have to remember that community is often the best feature. We have to remember why we got into this in the first place: to be like Rodney, helping other people, regardless of their station in life.
I almost quit writing this, as Jacob Kaplan-Moss’s I Refuse to Tolerate Assholes, combined with its Hacker News comments, especially Reginald Braithwaite’s, says it all. This was mostly cathartic for me.
I want to acknowledge someone who is a model of what OSS should be: David Jones (@unixmonkey) is a fantastic open source software contributor and leader (and person). For instance, on WickedPDF, he is ever kind, and, somehow, ever responsive. I am very happy he is contributing to WickedPDF. I am much happier that I can call him a personal friend. Seriously, thanks Dave.